Comment May 2002

The Mother of Reinvention

The real reason Americans detest the idea of a national ID card

Although the Constitution doesn't directly mention it, Americans have always reserved the right to reinvent themselves—to wade into the waters of rebirth and emerge with new faiths, new livelihoods, new spouses, new sexual preferences, and even new names. The cult of unending self-improvement, our informal national religion, takes as its primary article of faith the idea that who a person was yesterday or happens to be today doesn't determine who he'll be tomorrow. Whether for first-generation immigrants or seventh-generation establishment WASPs, this is the land of clean slates and second chances—where, for example, a decades-old drunk-driving arrest need not prevent a man from becoming President. It's no accident that most self-help groups use "anonymous" in their names; to Americans, the first step toward redemption is a ritual wiping out of the self, followed by the construction of a new one.

Which may account for some of the hostility to proposals for a new national identity card as a weapon in the war on terrorism. Orwellian fears of bureaucratic snooping fuel much of this resistance, but not all of it. There's a positive preference at work as well: for fluidity over stability, for dynamism over lamination. In America to be ID'd—sorted, tagged, and permanently filed—is to lose a bit of one's soul. To die a little.

This sounds like a subtle, poetic notion. It's not. In American legal and cultural tradition one essential privilege of citizenship is not having to prove it on demand. If a cop swaggers up to you on the street tomorrow and asks for your name, you won't be breaking any laws if you answer "Walt Whitman" or "Mickey Mouse." Not that you have to give any name at all. Of course, there's a chance that you'll be arrested anyway (possibly on some local vagrancy ordinance of doubtful constitutionality), but even then you'll have a right to silence. In principle the line is clear: unless and until the citizen asks the state for something in return (the chance to drive a motor vehicle, say, or to fly on federally regulated aircraft), his identity, or lack of one, is purely his own business.

In practice the right to remain a cipher was largely bargained away with the New Deal. When the Social Security Act went into effect, some critics sensed a threat to personal privacy, and the government got busy reassuring them that they had nothing to fear. The deep-seated apprehension that Social Security numbers would come to serve as de facto national "dog tags" placed the Administration on the defensive and figured almost as prominently in the debate as concerns about the program's cost. (There were even rumors in the press that American workers might have to provide fingerprints as a precondition of employment.) In retrospect the furor seems almost quaint. SSNs have over the years become, with precious little public outrage, precisely what the New Dealers swore they wouldn't become—near universal digital surnames.

Softened up by passwords, PINs, and credit ratings, most Americans no longer cringe at the prospect of being reduced to numbers. The national ID cards now being proposed in the name of homeland security would, however, take the process to a whole new level, by serving not merely as bureaucratic conveniences but as high-tech surrogate selves. In the industry they call them "smart cards." Embedded computer chips, instantly readable by machines, might store anything from one's date of birth to one's racial makeup. The information on the cards themselves would hardly matter, though; the key to the system would be the databases, richly detailed and voluminous, that the cards plugged into.

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Walter Kirn is the author of Up in the Air.

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